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We've all heard those peppy bromides for dieters. We all know that "Little snacks mean bigger slacks", and that - if we want to lose weight - our twin best-friends are self-denial, distraction techniques and water. One thing we're all certain of - whether we want to fit into a slinky black dress, a wedding dress, or our old favourite pair of jeans - we'll never get there without rigid determination.
But that's not actually true.
What's that now?
Research coming out of Portugal and the Netherlands suggests that, rather than helping weight loss, prolonged rejection of our own desires may actually make it harder to lose weight.
Planned cheating, rather than ruining our attempts at a diet, may boost our metabolism and satisfy our sweet tooth, making it easier to stick to diets long-term, and improve long-term weight loss.
Zeelenberg and colleagues conducted (2016) conducted two studies. One simulated dieting, and one had the participants follow an actual diet plan.
First, 59 participants role-played the part of dieters. Half imagined they were on a traditional seven-day diet, while half imagined they dieted for six days but had a "cheat day" on the seventh and could eat anything they chose. Participants were then escorted though an imaginary supermarket, and had to list strategies for resisting sweet and naughty temptations. Those who had a "cheat day" were able to list far more strategies to resist temptation.
In the second study, 36 participants were monitored for their willpower, weight and motivation while they followed a diet. Half ate 1500 calories every day, while half ate 1300 calories a day for six days and 2700 calories a day on the seventh. Willpower and motivation weakened in the 1500 calories a day group, but was still strong in the "cheat" group. The "cheat day" group also lost more weight over the course of two weeks, and felt happier.
Well, is that it, or is there more?
Zeelenberg and colleagues (2016) also conducted another study. This study tested the ability to pursue any long-term goal, and discovered that planning cheats or deviations was helpful in pursuing any long-term goal, including saving money.
But do these results matter?
These results are interesting to dieters. When we diet, we can feel like failures when we have a cheeky slice of chocolate cake at a party, or go out for a bag of fish and chips on Friday. However, this new research means that these "failures" don't have to be viewed as "failures", but as healthy deviations that can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet-plan.
This new research is also good news for dieters because it means that no food is off-limits. You can be free to enjoy chocolate, cake, wine, and potato chips as part of planned cheats, without breaking your healthy eating plan.
That can't be a good idea...
Actually, a diet that's too rigid has been shown to cause cravings and increase the chance of failure. Any diet you don't enjoy (especially a diets that are particularly restrictive, or that have complex rules - "if it's a full moon, eat one guava, soaked in the milk of a cheery yak; if it's a waning moon, eat two papaya, soaked in the milk of a content yak") are linked to low-adherence.